The Enduring Splendors of, Yes, Afghanistan

A writer and photographer crisscross a nation ravaged by a quarter century of warfare to inventory its most sacred treasures

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There is a spirited debate going on over what to do about the Bamiyan statues. Some want to reconstruct them, noting that the Indian Archeological Survey made exact measurements of the statues back in the 1950s, and with modern technology they could be replaced in situ. Others, most notably American Nancy Hatch Dupree, a leading authority on Afghanistan’s cultural heritage, and Kareem Khalili, vice president of Afghanistan and chief of the Hazara tribe, think the niches should be left empty, as memorials. I’m with them.


Even Azat is uneasy about the 12-hour journey north to Mazar-i-Sharif, site of the most beautiful building in all of Afghanistan, the Great Mosque of Hazrat Ali. Not only must we go through the hazardous Salang Tunnel, built in the 1960s by the Soviets and damaged during the war, but we must drive through areas where live minefields extend to the edges of the road. An American aid worker was kidnapped at a renegade checkpoint on the highway a few months ago, and the day before we depart, 17 fighters from feuding Tajik and Uzbek tribal militias are killed in SamanganProvince, which we must cross. But fortune smiles, and we arrive without incident.


Mazar, as Afghans call the city, was the scene of heavy fighting several times over the past decade: Hazaras against Uzbeks; Hazaras and Uzbeks against Pushtuns, Arabs and Pakistanis; then Hazaras against Uzbeks against Tajiks. As we head into the heart of the city, we pass burned-out warehouses and factories, blocks of debris where shops and offices once stood, and trucks twisted like pretzels. And then, looming over the trees and rooftops, we catch sight of the beautiful ocean-blue domes of Hazrat Ali.


The story goes that the body of Imam Hazrat Ali, who was murdered in A.D. 661 near Baghdad, was placed on a camel and sent east across central Asia. The camel finally collapsed near Balkh, a few miles northwest of present-day Mazar, and Ali was buried there. Agrand shrine and mosque were erected on the site, only to be destroyed by Ghenghis Khan in the 13th century. Since 1481, when the mosque was rebuilt, it has undergone countless additions and changes, evolving into the surreal architectural jewel we marvel at today. It doesn’t look like it was “built,” if that makes sense: rather, that it somehow materialized, a vision magically transmuted into stone. The gardens that ring the mosque complex teem with worshipers on their way to late afternoon prayers, bands of schoolboys, beggars and pilgrims. A few people stare at us with set expressions, but most smile and say “Asalaamaleikum,” “Hello.”


To many Westerners, even the word “Islam” evokes images of rage, swords, war. Here, you feel the real meaning: submission to faith, tolerance, peace, balance and tranquillity. I hear laughter, and look over to see men and boys feeding the sacred white doves that flock here by the hundreds. Mazaris believe that when a bird flies here, it turns snow white from the pure holiness of the place. It is good luck to have the birds land on you, and some people, by judicious offerings of birdseed, manage to attract the doves. They laugh as their friends photograph them; one turbaned elder tapes his dove-covered compatriots with a video camera.



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